How to become more innovative

See how Microsoft, Tata and PA Consulting develop their bright ideas.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 28 Jun 2017

The word ‘innovation’ tends to conjure unhelpful images of PhDs in white coats, behind a door that says R&D department. In the best organisations, however, innovation is found everywhere, from business model to marketing, from finance to facilities.

Innovation boils down to smart ideas, smartly applied, in pursuit of doing things better. It has little to do with genius and only occasionally anything to do with technical nous. That’s the good news: anyone and any business could be innovative. The bad news is that most just aren’t.

But perhaps they could be. At Management Today’s Future of Work: Digital conference earlier this month, we gathered some innovative powerhouses to find out how.

Steal Ideas

There’s no such thing as an original idea – and getting precious about being preternaturally unique closes you off to real-world creativity. ‘I love stealing ideas from one place and applying them to another,’ said Frazer Bennett, chief innovation officer at PA Consulting.

‘We’re developing new kinds of cotton fabric. We built more candy floss machines than they’ve got at Alton Towers, and we’re using them to spin cotton. We stole stuff out of hearing aids to make medical patches. If you go to a concert at the O2 and look up, you’ll see an array of bird watching microphones pointing to the audience – we created a crowd engagement system out of it. That’s what innovation looks like to me.’

Show you accept failure

The penalty for failure should not, repeat, not be death. If you expect people to come up with great ideas – and attempt to put them in to practice – then you’ll have to be willing to take the rough with the chaff.

‘If you want people to be more innovative, you need to give them permission to do so,’ said David Landsman, executive director of Tata Ltd, a business that has hundreds of different companies.  

‘A few years ago we set up an innovation competition. One category we added was Dare to Try, an award for an innovation that fails – a good idea, well carried out that for some reason didn’t work. That says that failure in a large, structured, corporate context is allowed and might actually be a good thing... if you don’t get that clear message across, the assumption is that leaders want to avoid risk at all costs.’

Encourage experimentation

Creating a culture of innovation involves more than just removing the stick; adding the odd carrot can work wonders too, as Microsoft Research Cambridge’s innovation director Haiyan Zhang explained.

‘Every year in July, the entire company [i.e. Microsoft] spends a week doing a hackathon. You form your own groups and spend a week working on a passion project. They get voted on in the company, and the winning projects eventually get to spend time with the leadership. That’s a really powerful tool to empower employees and generate bottom-up innovation.’

Listen to everyone

Events and awards can send a strong message, but to have a lasting impact, the innovation culture needs to be there every day. The important thing there, said Steve Rowe, senior partner and deputy MD of Kantar Vermeer UK, is to acknowledge that good ideas can come from anywhere – or anyone.

‘One of our most junior analysts looked at the way we were doing things and devised a wholly new system for thinking about financial allocation when it comes to media.  Even though he was very young and junior, we gave him the space to experiment on work time to bring that idea to life. Now it’s a fully fledged product that we’re selling and making money from,’ Rowe said. So keep your ear to the ground and give people space.

Be clever with your resources

‘Look at the resources you’ve got in your organisation or ecosystem and see how you can bring them together, drawing from their disparate experiences,’ advised Landsman. ‘At Tata we have industrial companies, an IT business and a watch business. We brought them together to make a wearable for industrial environments.’

Know which ideas to keep – and which to can

All this may help you to find ideas, but as any creative person will tell you, ideas are ten a penny.  ‘An important part of innovation is saying no to stuff,’ said Bennett.

The alternative is turning good failures into expensive failures, and not having the resources to follow through with the best ideas.  Be careful though - you can end up shutting down the source of innovation itself. ‘Allow more people to be involved in that decision process down the line, so they don’t feel like it’s these bloody executives turning stuff off,’ suggested Bennett.

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